The Living Mountain
Story Number: 37
Writer: Peter O’Donnell
Artist: Steve Dowling/ John Allard
Published: 16th March 1960 – 24th August 1960 (T65 – T202)
Number of Episodes: 138
The title panel continued Dowling and O’Donnell’s style of having the picture represent action some way into the story. In this instance, it showed a split panel of a young girl on a mountain side enveloped by flames and a resolute-looking Garth and Lumiere – intriguing!
Following directly on from the previous story, Garth joins Lumiere in New York where, following a scientific convention, Lumiere will be spending a fishing vacation in a friend’s lakeside cabin. The owner of the cabin, Raymer, tells Lumiere that they will need to buy supplies before setting off as there are no farms around, and only a Shamur settlement about eight miles away in an isolated valley. The Shamurs are a sect akin to the Amish community, old European stock, and with very strict religious ways, archaic, and against all things new.
As they pass the Shamur valley in their jeep, a curious Garth and Lumiere contemplate paying them a visit, and stop their vehicle. But they are spotted by the village elder, Caleb. He vows that the “strangers” will not come in to the valley and stands, his hands now fists, starring at their distant vehicle. Up in the hills, Garth and Lumiere suddenly change their minds, professing that they no longer have the slightest interest in visiting The Shamurs, and return to the jeep to drive on to their lakeside cabin.
In the following days, they proceed to enjoy their vacation, fishing on the lake. As Garth and Lumiere’s boat is returning to the shore, we see the young girl from the title panel running through the woods towards their cabin. The girl seems to be fleeing, and she trips outside their cabin. As Garth helps her up, he sees that she is terrified. She begs them to hide her, and that they will “not let them take me back!”
Once again, with O’Donnell’s plotting involving lots of outdoor action and scenery, Dowling and Allard’s crisp and beautifully shaded artwork matches the story perfectly. Inside the cabin, the girl tells them that her name is Martha, adding cryptically that she is “of the new people…the children of Zahli!”
When Lumiere expresses puzzlement regarding her designation of “new people” and Garth asks if she was running away from them, Martha tells them it is difficult to explain, so she will show them instead.
Lumiere is suddenly seized by a fit of rage. He picks a quarrel with Garth and grabs an axe lying near the log fire and threatens to kill Garth. Garth grabs a chair with which to defend himself, but Lumiere abruptly calms down and lowers the axe. He is shaken and embarrassed, telling Garth that he does not know what possessed him, and asking for forgiveness for his momentary madness. Martha calmly tells them that she made him go berserk to demonstrate how “the children of Zahli are different from all others…”
‘Zahli’ is the ‘mother’ of her people, a mysterious entity through which they are changed. Martha, however, was not changed so greatly as her “cousins”. She is afraid of them, and has run away. Garth realises that she must have escaped from the Shamur settlement.
At that moment the cabin shakes violently and the ceiling beams crack and fall down about their heads. As they cower on the floor, the effect abruptly ceases, and the cabin stands as it did before. It has all been an hallucination induced by the girl to demonstrate her powers, She adds that she only has minor powers compared to others of her community – in particular Caleb their leader, who possesses the power to “cast a dream upon a whole city if he wished!”
Suddenly they see through the window that their jeep outside has burst into flames, and Garth and Lumiere dash outside to extinguish the fire. Martha follows them out and tells them that the fire is an illusion, but they cannot hear her. Two Shamur men, sent by Caleb, appear and kidnap Martha, taking her away in a horse-drawn carriage.
Garth and Lumiere recover from their hallucination, and finding the footprints of two men alongside Martha’s, they realize that Martha has been abducted back to the settlement. Garth wants to chase after them, but Lumiere cautions that they cannot set out until he has devised a defence against the Shamur’s hallucinatory powers.
In the settlement, Martha is brought before Caleb. She tells him that she is “afraid that the Mother Zahli brings evil.” The sombre, brooding Caleb tells her that she will be brought to trial that night for the judgment of the Elders.
Back at the cabin, Lumiere has worked out a plan to combat the Shamur’s mental illusions. He does this by an admixture of hypnosis (self-hypnotising himself as well as Garth) and concocting an herbal injection which acts as a painful irritant. He tells Garth that if he is experiencing a happening in which he no longer feels the pain in his arm, he will know it is an illusion and snap out of it.
As dusk falls, they set out to rescue the girl. From their hillside concealment, Garth and Lumiere look down on the settlement and see people beginning to gather together in a large building. Lumiere tells Garth that he suspects the Shamurs are mutants, a new species of humanity…presumably caused by the mysterious ‘Mother Zahli’ Martha had mentioned. Lumiere is curious to know who or what has changed them, and how they will choose to use their strange new mental powers.
They make their way down to the building where the Shamur community have gathered for the trial of Martha. Outside, beneath a window, they hear Caleb and a judge confronting Martha. Eavesdropping, they learn that Martha, on reaching the age of 14, had been scheduled to appear before Mother Zahli to become “a true child of Zahli”. However she had ran away before the process had been consummated, so had remained a hybrid, someone between a human and one of the new people. To Martha’s consternation, Caleb tells her that she shall again “be led into” Zahli, so that she shall be fully changed. Martha is terrified at the prospect. Caleb warns her that if she does not submit, she will be slain.
At that moment Garth and Lumiere are spotted by a couple of villagers who challenge them and raise the alarm. The Shamurs project frightening illusions into their minds to ensnare them, but Garth and Lumiere recognise and reject them, and are able to make their escape in the darkness.
When the Shamurs report their failure to Caleb, he realises that Martha must have warmed them to prepare their minds, so he takes personal charge. As the first-born of Zahli, he has greater powers. He projects an illusion that he is Martha, apparently escaped. Garth and Lumiere run to ‘her’, only for her image to fade, revealing Caleb with a very real shotgun trained on them. They are captured and bound, and put in with Martha to await the morning. Caleb tells them that he will not kill them yet, as Zahli may instruct him to take them before her to be ‘changed’, In the meantime they will be under armed guard.
Lumiere urges Martha to tell them all she knows about the mysterious Zahli. Martha tells them that Zahli is in fact a living mountain! Many years ago, a young Caleb had been leading a team of men prospecting in the mountain seeking iron ore, and had driven a shaft into the mountain. ‘Zahli’ had ensnared their minds and drawn them deep inside the mountain to her radiant core. Here they were somehow changed and mentally enslaved. When Martha had been ordered into the mountain when she was 14, she had sensed that Zahli was evil, so had not continued into the radiant heart: she had turned back, so she was only half-changed.
The next morning, Caleb arrives with armed men and a horse and buggy, and Garth’s party are taken towards the mountain. Caleb tells them that he has communed with the living mountain, and Garth, Lumiere and Martha are to be taken into the radiant heart, where they will become changed into “children of Zahli” to be recruited for the “Great Work” to come.
Garth whispers to Martha to hold herself in readiness to help protect him with her mental powers…and suddenly Garth exerts all his strength; his bulging muscles rip the shirt from his back, and he snaps the ropes binding his wrists. Leaping forward, he grabs the driver up and hurls him into the armed men following the buggy. Seizing the reins, Garth urges the horses into a gallop.
The Shamur project images of barriers – such as a herd of cattle blocking the road – but Martha recognises them as phantom scenes and Garth keeps going. The Shamurs report the escape to Caleb, and his more subtle mind-casts trick Garth to head along a phantom trail. Martha’s warning comes too late, and the buggy crashes and is wrecked on rough ground. The horses break away. Martha has sprained her ankle, and Garth carries her into the woods, accompanied by Lumiere who is unhurt.
In the woods they discover a derelict prospector’s hut and an abandoned shaft in the mountain side. Meanwhile, Caleb has gone into the heart of the mountain to commune telepathically with ‘Mother Zahli’. She tells him to call off the pursuit, as the ‘normals’ will return by their own will to attack her alone when they realise that no one will believe their story. When they do return, Caleb will be ready to ensnare them.
Martha suffers a sudden fainting fit, and when she recovers, it is realised that Zahli has withdrawn her mental powers – thus removing the only possible way they might have convinced outside authorities that the Shamurs posed a danger.
Responding to their questions, Martha tells Garth and Lumiere more details of Zahli’s “Great Work”. It is intended that individual Shamurs, led by Caleb, will disperse into the capital cities of the world and cause chaos by casting dreams of terror. The Shamurs will take control as a ruling elite, under the mental thrall of Zahli. Normals will be treated as insects, and the world would become as an ant-hill or bee-hive, under Zahli’s control.
Exploring the abandoned shaft, Garth discovers an intact, sealed box of dynamite left behind when the prospector had presumably left in a hurry after suffering sickness or an accident. He formulates a daring plan – to somehow penetrate to the interior of the living mountain, into the insides of its enormous body to reach its radiant heart, and then detonate the dynamite, using a fuse to give them a chance of escaping. But the problem is that at close quarters Zahli can read their minds and control them by its radiation acting on their brains.
The ever-resourceful Garth also discovers a pile of discarded lead piping, and asks Lumiere if lead might act as a barrier to Zahli: he knows that lead is used as a shield in nuclear reactors. Lumiere confirms that as lead absorbs short-wave radiation, it should also serve to block Zahli’s radiations. They evolve a plan to mould two lead helmets to fit over their heads to protect them as they seek to penetrate into the mountain, and plant the dynamite. This use of lead helmets to block thought waves was yet another SF trope borrowing by O’Donnell, one that had been used by John Russell Fearn in many stories.
Martha has identified to them “the great artery”, an alternate opening into the mountain, so they can avoid the main entrance being guarded by the Shamurs. The artery tunnel is illuminated with strange green fire and yellow water, and Garth and Lumiere – wearing their ‘Ned Kelly’ helmets and armed with the box of dynamite and prospecting tools found in the prospector’s hut – set off on their mission, leaving Martha to anxiously await their return.
Now bereft of the gift to know dreams from reality, Martha falls victim to the mind-casts being made by the Shamurs, and in fleeing from their terrors, blunders down the hillside to where Caleb and his men are waiting, and is recaptured.
Meanwhile, inside the living mountain, although Garth and Lumiere’s lead helmets protect them from mental assaults, Zahli has other defences. She is able to increase the temperature in the artery, and Garth has to deter Lumiere from removing his helmet in order to breathe freely. Then they are physically assailed by giant bacteria swinging down from the walls of the artery on glistening tentacles – poisonous anti-bodies! Garth manages to fight them off, by swingeing blows of his pick. Next, the walls of the artery begin swelling, barring their way. But Garth realises that the walls, being alive, can feel pain, and so he swings his pick to savagely attack the walls, causing them to retract their expansion.
Dowling and Allard’s artwork reached new heights of inspiration, the intense and varied shading and intricate cross-hatching produced startling effects that made the fantastic action seem believable.
In the Shamur settlement, Martha has been terrified into telling Caleb that Garth and Lumiere are inside the mountain. Caleb is pleased and complacent at this news, confident that Zahli will overcome and ‘convert’ them. His party moves to the mountain main entrance to await the emergence of their new “cousins”.
Garth and Lumiere battle their way through to the radiant hollow that is the ‘heart’ of Zahli. The attacks on them cease, and Lumiere conjectures that the heart has no defences of its own. Garth is able to set a 10-minute fuse on the dynamite without further distractions, Zahli presumably unaware of her danger, just as a human mind would not know what a microbe was doing in the body’s bloodstream.
Garth and Lumiere are within sight of their exit point, but have not reached it when the dynamite explodes with shattering power in the heart of the mountain. The roof ahead of them collapses from the tremors, and they are trapped.
Outside, the Shamurs scream in sudden agony as the death pangs of Mother Zahli stab through their minds. Martha is not affected, and she realises that Zahli has been destroyed. Behind the fallen rock barrier, Garth starts on what seems a futile attempt to remove the rocks. Outside, the Shamurs recover from their shock, and begin to realise that they had been serving an evil intelligence and that they had been possessed. They are full of contrition. Martha implores them to strive to clear the fallen rocks – to “fight to save those who saved you – the strangers who have slain Zahli!”
After unceasing effort they finally manage to clear the entrance and meet Garth, who is similarly working from the other side. Lumiere tells the wretched Caleb that his people – now dazed and lost – still need Caleb to lead them back to the good life which only the elders can remember.
Garth and Lumiere stay overnight in the Shamur village, recovering from their ordeal before resuming their holiday at their lakeside cabin; Martha drops in from time to time to act as housekeeper. When Raymer, the owner of the cabin comes to collect them, he tells them that on his way in he had been amazed to find that the Shamurs had erected a stone monument on the mountain with a carved legend that reads:
“Here Garth slew Zahli, thereby saving our people and all mankind.”
Raymer had asked them what it meant, but they wouldn’t tell him. When he asks Garth, his dry response is that it must have been “…some queer idea that they must have…dreamed up…I don’t suppose anyone will ever know why…”
The Living Mountain is a fun read, undoubtedly one of the finest written and illustrated Garth adventures.
Previous: The Big Game | Next: The Long Sleep
Synopsis by Philip Harbottle
In a feature encompassing the entire history of the much-loved strip, Garth writer Philip Harbottle pays tribute to artist and editor John Allard, who worked at the Mirror for over 50 years, outlining his huge contribution to Garth‘s enduring success
Strip dates given are those of their original appearance in the British newspaper the Daily Mirror, first compiled by Geoffrey Wren and Ann Holmes and updated by Ant Jones and Philip Harbottle
Garth © REACH/ Daily Mirror